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From Poetry Magazine

Failure’s Failure

By Phillip B. Williams

Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan.

Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Phillip B. Williams’s poem “Interruptive” appears in the May 2017 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.


In the May 2017 issue of Poetry, Sandra Simonds writes, “Poe thought America was one giant cage.” She then follows with the haunting lines: “Try to put a cage around your dream. / The cage escapes the dream.”

This paradox, if that is the right word, feels directly related to my own experience in writing the poem “Interruptive,” which is excerpted in the May 2017 issue.

What does it mean for a country to be a cage and for that cage to escape the very dream it tried to hold in captivity?



Witness (n.) Old English witnes “attestation of fact, event, etc., from personal knowledge”; also “one who so testifies”; originally “knowledge, wit,” formed from wit (n.) + -ness. Christian use (late 14c.) is as a literal translation of Greek martys (see martyr). Witness stand is recorded from 1853.

Witness (v.) c. 1300, “bear testimony,” from witness (n.). Meaning “affix one’s signature to (a document) to establish its identity” is from early 14c. Meaning “see or know by personal presence, observe” is from 1580s. Related: Witnessed; witnessing.

I have doubts about how, as poets, we use the word witness. What are the privileges that come with not being in a place but writing about the struggles of a place, of the people who live there? If “to witness” requires a knowledge predicated on “personal presence” then how do we make ourselves proximate to danger in ways that can be considered insincere? How do we attest to fact, give confirmation, through the haze of distance?



“In fact, the poem might be our only evidence that an event has occurred: it exists for us as the sole trace of an occurrence,” writes Carolyn Forché in her essay “Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness,” in American Poetry Review.

Poem as artifact from those who were there, at the battleground, at the home turned ruin, at the settlement, the demolition. Poems as, again to quote Forché, “evidence.” But I read this as different from, though related to, poetry written from outside an experience but still about an experience. These poems move with empathy or, maybe more powerful now because sincerer, sympathy for the subject.

“Frankly, I wonder if pity would be more useful at times.”Solmaz Sharif

Is empathy a problem? I haven’t read The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, but I imagine she covers this question with much more detail than I am attempting here. I am interested in avoiding performing a kind of understanding for another’s pain as a pain felt in my own person when I don’t have the literal or figurative embodiment of that experience. How could I understand what it means to be inside of a school while missiles blow it up? What I feel is sadness, compassion, and, yes, pity for another. What I do not feel are the shoes of another on my feet, which for me leans on the possession of another person’s body: “I am in your shoes because I have imagined myself in them and therein comes all understanding,” or the attempt to understand; but to understand, to try to, does not require wearing the clothes, the skin, of another.



In “Interruptive” I want to complicate the idea that empathy is not only preferable to sympathy but is even possible. Coming from an American imagination that relies on the erasure of other people all over the world in order to maintain its many false beliefs of its own supremacy, I originally found myself writing this poem in a way that dictated for those who suffered what they should and should not pay attention to in their own lives. If I write about them—who is them? what are their names? what do they want? where do they live? how? why?—how do I choose what to pay attention to and how does that choosing guide the reader into a deeper eradication of the subject? And even there: “subject.” The ways we speak about poems can be so clinical, so abstract and unpeopled. I wanted to turn the lens on the “I” that does all the looking and point to how that looking is flawed. But this has its failures and its unexpected readings. “Interruptive” does not, at this moment, name specific places other than The United States and the Gaza Strip. It relies solely on mentioning things that have happened in the world and letting the reader use their own knowledge of war to fill in the blanks how they can. This does two things that I notice right away (there surely are more).

First, in its concept of attempting to force the reader to use their own knowledge as a compass, as a literal map of atrocities, “Interruptive” rejects its potential power of sympathy by making its atrocities placeless and, therein, making them without a population against whom these atrocities have happened. By being vague it discounts the actual.

Second, the reader may imagine that a scenario presented in the poem is “about” a particular place that the poet, I, did not have in mind. This can be powerful in as much as the place is a valid one and not one based on racist stereotypes. Here, the poem is only as powerful as its reader, but in a way that carries with it a moral argument that, for me, weighs more than it would if the reader, say, misinterpreted “spilled milk” as a metaphor for ejaculation. What is at stake? How is it measured? What are the repercussions?



So, in this way, this excerpt is a coward. By not saying Israel and Palestine, for some readers it isn’t saying anything at all. By not saying the Mexican border wall or Afghanistan, it allows for readers to think nostalgically about the collapse of the Berlin wall and mistakenly about Iran.



“Aren’t all Brown people the same?” the poem seems to ask as both an indictment of the speaker and as its own believed inquiry. How much of this is an ambivalent critique by an active imagination? How much of this is incidental and self-righteous?



What I seem to want to talk about is the failure of a poem as being both a powerful mechanism and a destructive force. But even then, there is credit being given, and what about that? After all, isn’t it American to give one’s self credit for trying, for saying that one is trying, while being unable to or unwilling to bear witness through the television screen enough to learn the names?

So, I have to decide whether or not I want to continue on this route of not specifying where, when where is what gives the space for the whom. There are people, not merely subjects, in this poem. There are migrants from Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea, Mali, and Libya (whose unsustainability is largely due to American interference) still in Lampedusa, Italy, trying to find safety. And here I am, in America, ignorant as a doorknob, trying to keep up with all of this while in this cage of privilege, distance, miseducation, and imperialism.

But if it is true what Simonds writes, that the cage escapes the dream, then this must mean that the dream is something the cage fears and that the dream, whatever that could be, needs to be used with more force. And this cage is also a dream inasmuch as it attempts to make unreal the tangible murder of people all over the world.

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Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Tuesday, May 16th, 2017 by Phillip B. Williams.